So it came that I had to get a new phone.  By “had,” I do mean “had.”  It was like when the Blackberry Tour decided it would no longer charge – if I wanted to continue using a phone, it was going to have to be something other than the Blackberry.  In the case of the Blackberry replacement, the new phone was the HTC8X Windows Phone 8.  A scant year later, it became necessary to change phones, again, as the HTC8X had begun such endearing behaviors as restarting at random, not sending texts, not receiving calls – you know…all the things that one looks for in a smartphone, these days.  So…now I have a Samsung S4. 

So enquiring minds want to know, do they?  They want to know “what do you like better?”  “which is a better phone?” “what made you choose Windows Phone in the first place and when you switched out the phone, why did you choose Android?”  These are all valid questions, really.  I’m going to answer them in a sort of shuffled order, though.

The Windows Phone Choice

I’ll be right up front – it was a “business” decision; a completely deluded, misguided business decision.  I thought that because it came with Office 2013 built in as well as built-in Outlook support (which turns out to be a bit misleading), I would be able to work on documents and handle company email tasks with ease and aplomb.  Lies.  Damned lies.  If you’ve never tried to deal with a 14-worksheet Excel workbook on your phone, you can die happy knowing that there are pieces of your soul that will never be pierced by unspeak evil.  If you have … you know of what I speak.

The Good.

Now, I liked the phone.  It’s a decent enough phone and I do have some apps I’ll miss as they’re not available on the Android market.  There aren’t many, but there a few, trust me.  For example, the 627AM alarm app is excellent.  I recommend it, highly.  GuitarTools is another that I enjoy that I haven’t found on the ‘droid market.  That said, I also enjoyed its fairly decent camera and pretty solid battery life.  Oh, and it had Beats built in, which is both a good thing and a bad thing.  I like the EQ boosting inherent to Beats a ton better than the overpriced, unwieldy and sonically suspect headphones of the same name.

The Bad.

The sim card slot sucks harder than blowing the door on a 747 at 30,000 feet.  I had to shim the sim with a piece of business card. This actually worked for several months until the past month when it simply would barf “SIM Card Error.  Emergency Calls Only” about 4 to 5 times a day.  Exceptionally irritating and, apparently, just a dumb design decision by HTC.  This alone was enough to push me towards switching phones. I never was a big fan of the random resets, either.  I would enjoy not being able to send a text three or so times and then on the fourth attempt, the phone would just reset.  It was the nail in the coffin as I sat in the Verizon store and it did it, twice, in the span of 5 minutes.

The Bluetooth implementation also seemed a bit sketchy.  I went through no fewer than 7 headset/earpieces trying to find one that would pair and maintain connection for more than 3/4 of a phone call without cutting in and out and eventually dropping connection so that I would hear “Hello?!” coming from the phone in my pocket.  Equally frustrating was the lack of device support.  Case in point, my Logitech bluetooth keyboard that I use extensively with my Galaxy tablet, and now, my S4; it never paired properly with the 8X.  For a phone that was purchased with productivity in mind, hammering out any form of work document on the touch-keyboard on the phone rather than a keyboard is…painful.

This is phone specific, but the lack of external storage got old.  Of course, if any SD expansion slot was handled the same way as the SIM slot, this might not have been a bad thing…

The Beats implementation did tend to muddy up metal, especially with blizzardy double-bass work…it’s why I didn’t go with the headphones of the same name: Amon Amarth sounds just awful at volume.

When Switching Phones, Why Did I Choose Android?

The obvious choice when detracting against the 8X, if you want to stick with a Windows Phone is the Nokia, from what I hear.  That said, I wouldn’t go Windows Phone again without corporate sponsorship and a custom OS-level developer living in my basement.  Why?  If you haven’t figured out from the previous section, then I’ll address why I went with Android.

First and foremost, it’s a much more stable OS.  I have had the S4 for close to two weeks, now and haven’t had a hiccup stemming from OS weirdness.  As I still have the phone, by way of making my point for me, the last three times I’ve trotted out the 8X to either sync contacts (manually, of course, since there’s no REAL support in that regard…), siphon off music or use one of the apps I like that have no counterpart, the phone has rebooted itself in the middle of said operation.  Seriously. 

Next, I prefer the Google Store.  I’m sorry – “Google Play.”  Even though nothing says ‘take me seriously’ like renaming a store concept to a “play” concept, it does have a more easily navigable paradigm, easier payment system that works more of the time and has a ton – and this is either imperial OR metric – more apps from which to choose.  Support for the Windows Phone is, indeed, growing, but at this point can’t hold a candle to the number of Android apps out there and part of that is the next point.

I can develop for my phone should I choose, and I can do it for free.  As a .Net developer imagine my glee when the SDKs were made available for the Windows Phones and were available as free add-ons to Visual Studio.  Imagine my grumpiness when said SDK was updated and would no longer work on my “plain” Windows 8 system but would require not only a paid upgrade to Windows 8.1, but also a paid upgrade to Visual Studio 2012 and whichever level of “awesome overkill” was a level or so above my version.  So, when I found the Android SDK, ADK and so on and plugged it into my Keplar installation of Eclipse and it *just worked* without any massive gyrations or outlays of cash, I was a very happy man.  That said, my Java is more than a little rusty, but the point is that with minimal effort (other than learning the language), I can start designing the next “Killer App” for my Android phone. 

Another reason was Google Everything.  I know, there’s no such product, but there might as well be.  The overarching products associated with Google and the integration into the phone OS are very compelling reasons.  My calendars now all sync.  My emails now come in without third-party applications.  I can, should I choose to accept the mission, hop onto Google Hangouts.  The main thing, however, was the calendar.  Since I’ve got it integrated with my Outlook installation at home, kludged into my Lotus Notes(!) installation at work, on both my tablet and now my phone, this makes it quite homogenous and reduces frustration levels a lot…in addition to reducing the number of “Oops!” moments as a result of a non-synced appointment being missed.

Which is a Better Phone?

There is no question in my mind that the Samsung S4 is a better phone than the HTC 8X, if only because of the SIM card debacle and the random resets. 

Summary, OR, Which Do I Like Better?

To conclude this rather lengthy missive, I will summarize as best I can without being overly repetitive.  I really like the S4 a lot.  I haven’t used it long enough to use the “Love” word (work with me…), but it’s growing on me.  It’s funny – my wife is watching the growing pains and learning curve of the S4 and keeps saying, “If you don’t like it or it doesn’t work, take it back!”  What she doesn’t have as part of the experiential frame of reference is the equivalent learning curve I went through with the 8X, as she hadn’t moved out here, yet. That’s a long story as to why, involving moving for work and that kind of thing, but the long and short of it is that she didn’t hear the same grumping and “aha” moments with the other phone.  The learning curve with the S4 has more to do with unlearning how I’d been doing it for the past year and doing it the way it’s done on an Android-based phone rather than “this thing sucks, wtf!” kind of problems.  Another big difference is that when I was having problems on the 8X, it was new enough that there were very few people who had any experience with it while the support on S4 has been superlative and “problems” have turned out to be less significant and more easily “fixed” with the S4 partly because the problems themselves are less significant (see SIM slot…) and partly because the fixes don’t involve OS-level tweaks, for the most part, which makes things much easier.

Honestly, I like Android better.  I’ll stick with Android.  The level of robustness is just, well, robust, and odds are good that if there’s something I want to do, there’s either an app for that, which wasn’t the case, often enough, with the Windows Phone. 

As someone who has designed some excellent as well as absolutely ludicrous user interfaces, I’ve come to appreciate good design sense and good designers.  What I have also come to appreciate is the ability to for a user to have a predictable interface.  That’s not something FB has been very good about.     The other thing is — a release schedule would be nice.  These "under the cover of dark" releases are what are most irritating to me.  There are no changelogs.  There’s no obvious, at least to me, life-cycle involved, because I’m pretty sure beta testers would flag things like, "I can’t find my mom’s posts through all the ‘sponsored links’ crap that fills my feed that oscillates back and forth between ‘Most Recent’ and ‘Top Stories’ seemingly at random."

The problem with such a paradigm (and I’m all for keeping designers in jobs) is that there doesn’t seem to be either a sensible amount of User Experience study going on OR any sort of appreciation (or discernible *caring*) for what users want. 

Here’s the thing…when a program changes its UI, people grouse about new looks and not being able to find things for a while, but get over it, as evidenced by just about every release of MSOffice.  With FB, the user doesn’t have time to get finished grumbling about the most recent change that makes it so they can’t find their basic feeds in the newest rendition of the news feed before we’re saddled with another, different change that either puts the most recent change *back*, so we’re no longer looking for it, there, or in a new place now that we’ve just figured out where the last new one was.

I know that there are all sort of new ways to configure your UI for FB, but here’s the other thing — is it truly acceptable to expect the casual or neophyte user (thinking of the average grandma, here) to have to dive into multiple layers of "I want this" vs. "Hide This" while trying to figure out what the 5 new icons at the top of every post mean (and what grandma is going to want to deal with Post Info" that you can trigger…other than learning bad HTML, from the looks of the code display) in addition to the 6 menu options from the new(ish) drop-down menu that has started appearing.   While making it "more configurable," you’re also taking it beyond what people want to do when they’re looking to see if mom’s having fun with the grandkids or if Tippy from school passed her boards.

To me, what Facebook is doing is exactly what makes us revile the Star Wars special editions…George just couldn’t stop tinkering to a point where people now loathe what they loved throughout their childhoods.  Congrats, FB, you’re the new George Lucas.

I’ve mentioned for a couple of bands/artists that particular “buy unheard” status.  Jeff Loomis has already been granted this status.  Keith Merrow joined up with Jeff, as did Alex Webster and Alex Rudinger.  So, it was with no hesitation, whatsoever, that I tossed the debut stylings of Conquering Dystopia into the ol’ cart and checked out.

If you’re not familiar with Jeff or Keith’s styles, they mesh well and are highly technical, rhythmically, with equally technical leads to accompany.  With that in mind, this disc has surpassed my expectations – and, believe me, those expectations were high.

Don’t misunderstand.  This isn’t a shred/wank-fest or “Bach-n-roll” a’la the mid-80s.  There will be no comparisons to Yngwie, Vinnie Moore or Tony McAlpine (who guests on Jeff’s most recent LP, for those interested), really.  This is pure Jeff and Keith putting together progressive and utterly dense, sinewy riffs upon which to delve into scale after scale, mode after mode.

Not to overshadow the bottom-end, thundering rhythm section, both Alexes (Alexii?) lay down bludgeoning groundwork that let both Jeff and Keith shred with that much more depth.  Use *good* headphones when listening, or a comparably capable stereo system to reproduce the brute force coming at you in the 80-260Hz range.  You will be rewarded.

There are times the albums lets up ever so slightly, to breathe, and those are welcome.  I really enjoyed, also, how these particular breaths segue into the most brutal entry riffs on the album. “Doomsday Clock” into “Inexhaustible Savagery” is mind-melting and I love it.  It all comes together with “Destroyer of Dreams” as a perfect ending to the album; it embodies everything the previous tracks built up towards and leaves you sated and spent.

Barring anyone else producing close to this kind of riff-gasm, I see strong contention for album of the year.  Oh…you want numbers and stuff?  Four thumbs up. But…that *is* serious.  Fine.  5 stars.  I will go 9.5/10 with deductions for making me almost short out my keyboard drooling over “Lachrymose” while adding 0.5 for using lachrymose correctly and really, truly, invoking that feeling.  This is a solid 10 album.

The bottom line with this album is really, really simple: Conquering Dystopia is technical, instrumental metal done exceptionally well and will both satisfy you deeply and leave you wanting more.  It’s hard to ask for more than that.

So, it came to be that I stumbled across Alex Skolnik’s take on the Metallica/Lou Reed collaboration that begat “LuLu” ( http://alexskolnick.com/?p=2047 ) and I’m not even going near that portion of the discussion, as it’s not the review that got my brain melting, since it was well-written and made a lot of sense.  No, I’m venting, now, because of the slew of comments that, basically, said, “metalheads are all idiots and have no business reviewing anything remotely ‘arty’ because they can only think in ‘metal’ terms,” or something to that point.  Sure thing, sparky.

I am only speaking of and from my experience.  These are completely my opinions and are, for better or worse, not representative of either metalheads as a whole or, really, anyone other than me.

Those Early Years

I grew up the son of a musicology professor.  What this means to you is that until I was 7 or 8, I didn’t really know there was music outside of Prokofiev, Mozart, Bach, Chopin or Puccini.  Modern music wasn’t really something I had much exposure to and so I listened to a lot of classical music and learning to appreciate what went into it.  Well, as much appreciation as someone of that age group can have when there are things like Star Wars to be enjoyed.

Fast forward to 1982, moving to a new city and having access to, not only new radio stations, but new friends.  I gravitated away from the strict classical diet and introduced WNOR and Z104 into my listening rotation which meant everything from ABBA to AC/DC to Pat Benatar to ZZ Top and just about everything in between.  I really liked the drums and pounding rhythms, but I also liked the guitar and, in a lot of cases, the vocals, though the lyrics of most AOR goes right over the head of an 8- or 9-year old.  About the only thing that didn’t get introduced into my musical lexicon, at this point, as rap (that would wait a year or three), jazz, country of metal. 

Exclusionary Discernment

Or, to put it another way, “all metal all the time.”  This period is my life was a little weird because, even saying I listened to nothing else is not entirely accurate.  I still listened to the classical music my dad brought to the table, but having fast forwarded some years (1986), I had discovered Metallica, Megadeth, Testament, Slayer, Stryper, and Iron Maiden.  I listened to them…a LOT.  Maybe it wasn’t to the exclusion of everything else, because I still listened to my Weird Al tape, my Go-Gos tape, my fresh copy of “License to Ill.”  It all was in there, but if it was in my walkman, it was metal and there wasn’t much time for anything else. 

I did, however, find that even within metal I was picky, thus the phrase “exclusionary discernment.”  I didn’t have much use for “style over substance” bands from LA at the time or much coming from the rock/pop world to cash in on the burgeoning popularity of metal…  That said, I was very grateful when I got to high school and got to meet people who introduced me to the Misfits, Samhain, Helloween, Savatage, Anthrax, and maybe a little virtuosity with Steve Vai, Satriani, Vinnie Moore and Greg Howe.  Still – just about all metal, all the time.

Artsy?

Throughout this time, I was involved in one of the things that makes me bristle when I hear one form of art lecture another about being able to judge, especially when such things are purely subjective.  I’ve been into “art” since I was able to sketch out dinosaurs doing various and sundry dinosaur things which is say, about 2.  I’ve had private teachers, taken classes, been to “enrichment” courses, taken “advanced”  and even slogged through college level art history classes.  Between that and having been amateur photographer for over 20 years, my own council will I keep as to what I feel is art.  Oh, and as a side note – I’ve played metal guitar (with some blues, jazz, classical and straight-up “rock”) for close to 30 years…just putting that out there.

So what, right?  So, this – I might cash in having a touch of “cred” when it  comes to the whole “what is art” discussion simply by virtue of having been in various facets of that world for a while. But here’s the thing – so what? 

Metal as “dumb.”

Even if another metalhead has had the same experience as I have, he or she isn’t going to have the same opinions or tastes.  Speaking in “metal terms” doesn’t make one dumb.  What makes one dumb may not be “speaking out of turn” when it comes to some avant-garde cross-over project.  What makes one “dumb” is just saying “wow, this sucks,” without offering this opinion without justification.  Here’s the sticky part, though.  For what it’s worth, the only justification *I* need to hear from someone is “…because I don’t like it.”  Now, I would prefer phrasing other than “This sucks,” because that usually is over simplifying it and leaves very little for any one to process in a meaningful manner.  And, again…it’s opinion.

For my part, saying something just “sucks” is dumb.  So is assuming that the person opining that something “sucks” is also dumb.  There are, in fact, times that the thing being reviewed as sucking has simply left the reviewer or person offering the opinion at a loss for words.  I will admit, without straying into the “sucks vs. art” debate, that “Lulu” left me at a loss for words.  It would be the easy path for me to just throw out “it sucks,” but I’m not sure it does – and that’s not the point of this rambling blog piece.

The point is that as someone who’s spend his life doing “smart” things while listening to mostly metal (I *did* diversify in college, I promise!), assuming that one can’t go outside a “metal mindset” is …well…dumb.   That’s not to say that there are a huge number of metalheads out there are nowhere near as diverse as I.  I’m not an idiot…I know this.  However, to say that because someone is steeped in the thrash of the 80s isn’t able to frame the type of music in anything other than metal is, honestly, irrelevant.  While my father – remember, the musicology professor whose musical tastes generally stop around the early 1900s and generally gravitate to the 1600s – would never sit down and spin “…And Justice For All,” after actually sitting him down with it, and having him play “To Live is to Die” on the piano, at least appreciated it for what it was – good musicianship that wasn’t his “cup of tea.”  To this day, I’m not sure how hard it was for him to admit this.

People know what they like when they hear it and a “sophisticated ear,” to me, means that someone else agrees with you about one of your opinions of music, not that you have some insight into music that allows you to spread the gospel according to your tastes, though this seems to be what people feel it means.  Sophistication may mean more educated, but, friends, I’ve heard counterpoint mingled with dissonance that peeled my eardrums and left them whimpering in the corner… Once again, back to subjectivity and how even an “educated” or “sophisticated” ear can still lead one back to “wow, this sucks” simply because *I* didn’t like it.  Now, because of education, I can say that I dislike certain things because of  paired off-beat time signatures overlaid with brutal chord combinations that are just painful (to me) to listen to, but even someone who’s not sat through music theory courses knows when something doesn’t sound good to them.  Just because they can’t, necessarily, articulate *why* something “sucks” to them, doesn’t make the opinion less valid.  If this were the case, we’d have to round up all the people who don’t like chocolate and call them idiots because they can’t get out of their “vanilla mentality.” 

…And Summary For All

I ramble.  It’s what I do.  I can’t write “short” fiction, and I can’t keep blog posts under 1,000 words.  That said, I can sum this up by saying that, really, people have opinions…all of them.  No opinion is right or wrong.  Once we police what people think and how they feel – then what?!  That said, I think the crux of this and why people veered fairly quickly into the “you’re an idiot metalhead and wouldn’t know art if it bit you on the ass” was the lack of “justification” or articulation.  Well, here’s the thing – not everyone’s equipped for that, be it through education, sophistication, age or some other factor that we, as the reader on the other side of the opinion just don’t know. I know that when I was 15, I couldn’t express why some of Miles Davis’ improvisational and experimental jazz just grated my nerves completely while other songs were just things of beauty.  Heck, there are times that I *still* don’t think I can express it.  Bottom line?  I either like it or I don’t.  It’s got nothing to do with being a metalhead.  It’s not nothing to do with being an idiot.  It’s got everything to do with what sounds good to me.

The Year in Metal – 2013

December 31, 2013

I’m not one for lists. They bore me as they’re completely subjective and it’s always “why is THIS his number one?! It should clearly be THIS!” and while that’s fine for some people, I’ll give that a miss. What I will give you is a whole bunch of summaries from reviews of albums I’ve listened to that were released this year and give you one that I consider to be the album of the year – but not tell you what it is until you come across it.

There were a lot of metal albums released, this year. I listened to a lot of music, it would seem! I would like to think streaming services and digital download for going a long way to preventing me from being buried under piles and piles of CDs. That said, I left out a lot and, mostly, that’s because not only did I run up against “oh, tomorrow’s 2014!” but I’ve been sick the last couple of days so completely ran out of steam.

These reviews were written over the course of the last few weeks, so tone and verbosity will vary. Hopefully, you will enjoy the reading as much as I enjoyed the writing.

The Year in Metal – 2013

Helloween – Straight out of Hell
I’ve been listening to Helloween for a mighty long time and I can say that this album was the first to really move me (in a positive way) since Keeper II. Yeah, I know…but it’s taken me this long to warm up to Andi Deris which is, admittedly, kinda sad since he joined the band 20 or so years ago. At any rate, musically, this album is just right – thrashy, speedy, power-y and, most important to me, listenable and interesting. Give this album a listen and enjoy it, well.

Omnium Gatherum – Beyond
Melodic Death Metal, indeed – the musicianship on this album is top-notch and the vocals are, well, suitably deathy. I really enjoyed the guitar work and everything just sort of fit together very well on this album. They understand dynamics very well and that’s something that a lot of bands out there could stand to learn. Definitely worth a listen.

Soilwork – The Living Infinite
Two discs at once. Bold. The last band I listened to that tried to do this failed, miserably (*cough* “Use Your Illusion” *cough*), and I was afraid Soilwork was going to do a half-cocked “here’s all the crap we wrote over the last tour whether or not it was good enough to be on an album” type album with 20 to 30 songs cluttering an album that should only have had 10. This is most certainly not the case. I enjoyed these discs (this album?) a lot. Yeah, there are a couple of softies, but I’d say 95% of the album is solid enough to please even the pickiest metalhead, not to mention Soilwork fan.

Killswitch Engage – Disarm the Descent
This album has some seriously killer tracks. Seriously. I think my favorite on the album may be “New Awakening.” But, I really enjoyed the overall feel and, almost more importantly, the consistency. There’s not a weak track on the album. I’ve seen it listed as some peoples’ album of the year pick. I’m not quite there, but this is definitely one of those albums that will get spun a lot, around here. I definitely recommend it.

Christopher Lee – Charlemagne: The Omens of Death
1. He’s Saruman. 2. He’s Count Dooku. 3. He’s in his 90s. 4. It’s actually damned good metal! Lee’s booming classically-trained bass flows smoothly over quite competent power metal that verges on thrash in some places. Of all the surprises this year brought, discovering Charlemagne was probably the largest. This album is much more metal-centric than “By The Sword and The Cross,” which got talky and overall “epic-y” while “The Omens of Death” had definitely more straight-up metal for you to enjoy while being no less epic.

Queensrÿche – Queensrÿche
Todd La Torre is the new voice of Queensrÿche and acquits himself quite nicely on this album sounding more like QR than QR has sounded in decades – basically since “Promised Land.” It’s not the most absolutely brilliant album this band has put out (that would be O:M), but this is what I would consider the best follow up to “Empire.” This album brings modern metal to QR rather than QR to modern metal and I think I like that better. This is a solid offering and I would recommend it to any QR fan that has been waiting for the “real” QR to show up after “Empire.”

Queensrÿche – Frequency Unknown
Dear Geoff…please…just stop. It’s gotten to a point where it’s almost comical, if it weren’t the fans that suffer. Think of the kids, man. At any rate, petty bickering aside, the album isn’t bad. It’s not as good as what I consider Queensrÿche “proper,” but musically it’s pretty good. The vocals dip into self-indulgent in a couple of places, particularly on the reworking of the classic QR songs that needn’t have been messed with. Basically, as The Geoff Tate Band, this is a solid enough album to not be embarrassing. As a Queensrÿche album, it’s pretty middle of the road.

Amon Amarth – Deceiver of the Gods
The complaint that Amon Amarth puts out the “same album every time” is completely unfair. To say that they’re sonically similar, cut from the same cloth and use the same formula…that’s completely fair. Now, the important distinction, here, is that the formula works. This album carries forward from the previous and unleashes Norse fury with unrelenting blast-beats and Hegg’s powerful bellows. Topically, it’s focused on Loki and carries you through the various stages of Loki’s betrayal of the gods and I believe does an excellent job carrying from one song to the next. My only complaint with the album is the way-forward mixing of the sound effects, specifically on “Blood Eagle,” which is a monster of song. At any rate, this album is definitely in the running for album of the year.

Huntress – Starbound Beast
Now, I’m not saying this is the best album since (place your favorite album, here), but I am saying it’s a marked improvement over the “Spell Eater,” and shows growth in all aspects.  It’s a very strong album.  It’s listenable – you could put it on infinite repeat in your CD player, if that’s not too “old school” a reference, and not get bored 1.5 plays through.  In fact, it’s after the first couple of listens that some of the little complexities start creeping out and make you think, “aw, our little Huntress is growing up!” I’d put it against some of the other releases this year with no problem.
My full review lives at kon16ov.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/huntress-starbound-beast-review/.

Týr – Valkyrja
I don’t often pre-order albums, but when I do, it’s not just for the extra stuff, but because I want to have the CD, lyric sheet and all the things that were part of the joy of buying albums, tapes and CDs as a kid – delivered to my door. That said, there are only a couple of bands that are worthy of “pre-order” status. Týr is one of them. “Valkyrja” did not disappoint. One of, if the not the, most enjoyable release, this year, I kind of have to give this album the album of the year honors.
What sets this album apart from others? Consistency, musicianship and what appeals to me. It’s funny – I love the album on its own (see my full review: http://kon16ov.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/tyrs-valkyrja-a-review/ ), but the addition of the covers, specifically “Cemetery Gates” put it over the top. I don’t know that I’ve heard a more faithful cover and Heri’s voice just continues to improve and on this song it’s phenomenal. Overall, the album has no filler, no fluff and no pretentions – it’s a Týr album, and it’s excellent.

Death Angel – This Dream Calls For Blood
There is nothing not thrash to the core about this album. Picking up where “Relentless Retribution” left off, this takes the next step with tight riffing, blistering vocals, spot-on solos and the thundering rhythms you have come to expect over the last couple of albums. It’s a definite contender for album of the year as Mark, Rob and the fellas deliver old school thrash with new school production and tie it up nicely with the patented Death Angel sound. My only complaint with the album is that the “new school production” brings a bit of the “volume war” into play and there are times when Cavestany’s guitar runs peak out and crackle as a result. Note to producers: I want to hear the notes, not have my eardrums split. Thanks. That said, this is definitely an album worth of the DA catalog and will, without a doubt, rock you.

Metal Church – Generation Nothing
Honestly, it sounds a bit like Overkill. OK, more than a bit. If Blitz were to front Metal Church, this is what it would sound like. It’s an enjoyable album with a lot of straight forward metal that’s been missing over the last decade or so. It’s a romp and contains solid riffing, good 80s metal song structure and a throw-back feel that fans of Metal Church will appreciate, as will metal fans in general.

Motörhead – Aftershock
Lemmy is old. Not Christopher Lee old, but old. The first thing that struck me with this album was that he didn’t SOUND as old as he is. This album sounds like it could have come at you straight away after “1916.” So, getting the “Lemmy is old” thing out of the way, this is a strong effort and hails back to what made this the first metal band to rule the world with an iron first: in your face chord-bashing rhythms, Lemmy yellin’ and a good, driving beat. This is a solid return to form for what might very well be the last Motörhead album.

Voivod – Target Earth
Voivod are referred to as “avant-garde metal” for a reason. They’re a bit off. They also have gained legions of loyal fans with the off-kilter rhythms, slightly bizarre vocals, disturbed lyrics and just overall weirdness. I have to admit – I’m one of those fans. I love to hear how they’ve avoided “normal” or “mainstream” this time around, you know? “Target Earth” is no different. It reminds me of the lunatic who has just enough lucid moments to not be relegated to being on the “all thorazine all the time” diet. You’re still a lunatic, but that side is allowed to exist in grudging syncopation with reality. Oh, and if you’re afraid they’re not heavy – I submit “Kluskap O’Kom” for your consideration…just remember – it’s got it’s weird moments, too, and you wouldn’t want it any other way! I like this album a lot.

Cult of Luna – Vertikal
Groove-jam-doom-sludge-psychadelic-black-metal? Epic song lengths, driven guitars, screaming vocals, droning rhythms and oscillating synths make this an almost impenetrable album for a casual listen. That said, it deserves more than a casual listen. It’s got layers. Many layers.

Sepultura – The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must Be the Heart
I’ve been listening to Sep since ’87. That’s a lot of time and a lot of albums. It’s with that in mind that I think this is the best Green album, to date. It’s thrashy, deathy and quite listenable. I think I put it just ahead of “Khairos,” which had been, previously, my favorite album from the Green era.

Steve Wilson – The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories)
Not quite metal, really, but a fun, funky guitar-based jaunt through Steve’s brain. It’s a good listen and there’s plenty of musicianship, of not the thrash of ages, to satisfy you. Lots of jazz influence and very, very listenable.

Anthrax – Anthems (Covers EP)
Just…No. Sorry fellas. This isn’t a horrible album, by any stretch, but there are moments when, as a listener, I just stopped and kinda shrugged, “Why?” As a covers album it’s decent enough. As an Anthrax album…not even close.

Suicidal Tendencies – 13
Skate Rock for the next generation? Or maybe just for the old generation waiting for ST do something like thins about…1992. It’s more grown up, more mature and unlike a couple of the later albums, more fun. There’s a recklessness, here, that’s been missing and I, for one, am enjoying hearing it, again. This is a good, solid ST album that brings enough of the new to bring in new listeners looking for the thrash-punk ST’s always been known for and enough of the old to make me want to dig out the skateboard and find a skatepark. Prudence and maturity prevents this, so I will simply listen to and enjoy this fun album from the innovators of their particular sound showing us that they still have it.

Volbeat – Outlaw Gentlemen and Shady Ladies
The one thing with having a niche sound is that that’s pretty much it. This album shows refinement from past albums with tighter sound and songwriting. The duets, for me, make the album because well…it’s King Diamond! The rest of the album, for me, just feels like a natural extension of “Beyond/Above” and that’s OK. Overall, I like it – it’s a solid offering and continues with the metalbilliness that we’ve come to expect from Volbeat.

Amaranthe – The Nexus
I’ll be up front – I liked their debut album slightly better, but not by much. A good sophomore release and just a good, solid album. There aren’t a lot of surprises on, here, which in a way is good because it shows they’re figuring out how to put out their sound. The three-headed vocals is still a solid mix and speaking of the mix, it’s excellent. A very good album.

Ghost – Infestissumam
Almost taking a musical position between Type O Negative and Paradise Lost, this is quite an odd little band. That said, this is a pretty good album. It’s not heavy, really, but it’s got some excellent grooves and the vocals are suitably doom/goth-y with just enough drone to by fairly hypnotic. I enjoyed the album.

Joe Satriani – Unstoppable Momentum
It’s not “Surfing With the Alien II” or “Flying II,” but it’s also not the delving into the bizarre, overly blues/jazz/funk-driven albums of late. I enjoyed this a lot and it proves Joe’s still got some edge to him while still having the capacity for some very catchy, yet “metal-y” soloing over good grooves. I enjoyed this album a lot more than the last few and might put it somewhere just after “The Extremist.” Well worth a listen.

Megadeath – Super Collider
All in all, it’s a decent album, in my opinion, but lacked the snarl that make "Peace Sells" or "So Far, So Good" and/or "Countdown" such good listens. I WILL say that, unlike the previous effort, his vocals/lyrics don’t ruin the music for me. Still, I wanted more face-melting solos from either Dave or Chris.

Oliva – Raise the Curtain
Not Savatage, not TSO, not Dr. Butcher and not J.O’s Pain…so what do we have here? We have a very enjoyable collection of music from when he was writing with Criss. It’s fun. It’s not 100% categorizable, and that’s OK. The first time I listened to it, I was a little baffled. The subsequent listens reveal the layers and songwriting that went into. It’s thoroughly enjoyable and well worth the listen.

Black Sabbath – 13
What is there to say? It’s the (almost) original Sabbath lineup – with NEW material! It’s also slightly disappointing inasmuch as what could they possibly release that would live up to the expectations of a reunion of this magnitude?! It’s a solid album and I enjoy it a lot. The doom-y, dirge-y slogging and infinite heaviness of the album is there. Ozzy vocals aren’t what they used to be, but really – he’s a million years old – and, let’s be frank, he’s still got it, for the most part. This is a great album and I enjoyed it. I just wanted unmitigated perfection. What I got was damned good. So, what I’m saying is that it’s not my album of the year, but pretty close.

Children of Bodom – Halo of Blood
I’m not a huge CoB fan and there are times Alexei is just TOO tweedly and attitudey for me. This album, to me, is a natural progression from “Relentless, Reckless Forever.” There’s some solid material on here. It’s seems slightly formulaic, in the CoB mold, but as with Amon Amarth – if it works, why deviate? It’s listenable and there are some heavy chops to be reckoned with, but, for my taste, I can really only take small doses at a time.

Newsted – Heavy Metal Music
Here’s my problem. I love Jason Newsted – he’s a great guy, great musician, great producer… What I don’t love is this album. It not only fails the “Phil Test” lyrically, but musically. For the record, the “Phil Test” for lyrics is, “do they repeat ad infinitum? Do they make sense? Do they sound like a drunk wrote them?” and for music, “is it endlessly repetitive? Is it GOOD music? Is the musicianship there?” For the record, “St. Anger” failed the “Phil Test,” completely, as well. That said, this album just does nothing for me. The vocals are sub-par, the music is sub-par and the lyrics, in a lot of places, are just dumb. I expected more out of Jason on this one, I really did.

Avenged Sevenfold – Hail to the King
…and by King, they mean Metallica. There are a couple of times where you can close your eyes and identify the songs from which the riffs were lifted. Overall, this is a decent album – the best from A7X in years. It’s worth a listen, though die-hard Metallica fans will probably just switch over to the black album after a couple of songs to hear the kings at work.

Iwrestledabearonce – Late for Nothing
OK…I’m not one for new-fangled much of anything…math core being one of those “what?!” labels I generally shy away from uber-sub-genre stuff. Then I see song titles that are clever, punny and reference in-jokes from movies and I think, “Fine. I’ll give it a whirl.” What I didn’t expect was to, despite the distorted shrieking, enjoy the album. I did. It’s not one that will probably get a LOT of listens, for what it’s worth, but it IS an album that sounds like a lot of work went into it and they’re definitely more than competent musicians. I like the female vocals – they work well. Not a bad disc, overall.

Ministry – From Beer to Eternity
I’ve heard this described as the logical follow-up to “Psalm 69.” I can’t disagree, inasmuch as it’s full of thrash, mechanized drums, oversaturated vocals and angst. That pretty much sums it up. It’s a romp, that’s for sure. The samples run free and are poignant/topical as well adding a little levity to subjects that are heavy as the music conveying them. It’s a dense listen but worth it. Come on in, the beer’s fine!

Trivium – Vengeance Falls
This album shows you what it has from the opening note. It’s a relentless journey through riffery, thrashery and all things that make Trivium good without what we’ve gotten on the last couple of albums that were more self-indulgent than satisfying. This release is pretty much what “In Waves” should have been. It just feels like a much more balanced and well thought out disc. I think the highlights of the entire album are “Through Blood and Dirt and Bone” and the “Skulls/We Are 138” cover. While everything on the album is excellent, these two rise above and make this a very solid and listenable offering.

Nightwish – Showtime, Storytime
It’s a live album/dvd. As such, it’s not going to be earth-shattering, but it is a solid offering. It was good to hear Floor behind the Nightwish machine and am looking forward to new material they will be trotting out. Overall, if you’re a fan of Nightwish and live albums, this is an excellent pickup.

Hatriot – Heroes of Origin
So you wanted some Souza-based thrash to kick your ears from here to kingdom come? Look no further. This album has enough individuality and personality to not get labeled “Exodus 2.0” while being absolutely Zetro. I really enjoy the album a lot and find the musicianship spot on with vocals that peel wallpaper. Who could ask for anything more?! I found this in the top 5 albums I listened to, this year. If you haven’t looked into it, I seriously suggest you do so.

 

Well that’s it.  Looking forward to some good stuff over the upcoming year!

Incognito and Martin…

November 10, 2013

Richie Incognito is a dick. Jonathan Martin is a sissy. These are the descriptions we’ve been force-fed over the past few days by the mass media. If you haven’t heard, then not only are you lucky as it’s not the most pleasant thing to have happened but you’re also a little behind in the story. Incognito and Martin are, or perhaps at this point, were teammates on the Miami Dolphins pro football team. They were both offensive linemen – in more ways than one, really – and were cut from much different cloths.

Everything came to a head over the weekend of the 2nd/3rd of November and seemed to be a clear-cut case of over-zealous hazing. Over the course of the last 5 days, it’s been shown that there is very little clear cut about this case. Richie Incognito, while having the coolest name in football, also has a bit of a raw edge to him that makes the kind of boorish, abusive behavior depicted almost expected. Jonathan Martin is a rookie on the team and has been seen as having thin skin for having left the team, last Sunday, to distance himself from the situation. Here’s the thing – those are two oversimplified looks at these two gentlem…er…guys. Something very important has been overlooked, at least from what I’ve heard over the past week, and it goes beyond football, beyond the rookie/veteran relationship and beyond the confines of the sports world as a whole. This is about humans being.

First, I know sports. I know the machismo. I’ve played, coached and parented. I know that you just “take it like a man” and if something is pushing you past your limits, you “man up” and do something about it. I know that this is the pervasive attitude and belief system that rears its head, even in the ranks of pewee football. I know that coaches tell 6- and 7-year-olds to suck it up and be a man when said child gets a stinger or light sprain or, alarmingly more frequently, a concussion. I also know that inside the helmet, be it football, hockey or baseball (batting), there’s sniffling, lip-biting and a kid doing everything in his or her power to not show the coach that it hurts to the point of making them cry. I’ve been that kid. I’ve coached a lot of those kids. I’ve watched, helplessly, as it was my kid. The bottom line for me has always been this: it takes more guts to take yourself out of a dangerous situation than it does to stay in it and that’s not always because you’re out of the immediate situation but more because you have to deal with it from your coach at teammates thereafter.

One thing that has come up was that Jonathan Martin was somehow weak or soft for having removed himself from the situation by quitting on the team. It’s pretty easy for us all to pass judgment, isn’t it? It’s not us. It’s our perception of one man, whom we don’t know, fitting into a schema that isn’t necessarily how it is, but how it’s shown and sold to us. What we don’t have is any knowledge into what was going through Martin’s head. We don’t know if he was along for the ride and “taking it like a man,” and generally not bothered by everything up to that certain point, that tipping point, the breaking, the snapping point. You know, that point where it’s all fun and games until it really hurts or really crosses a line – a line we may not have even known was there – and changes everything.

Here, my point is this: Incognito and Martin were, according to teammates, thick as thieves for the vast majority of the season, thus far. Everyone making Incognito out as a bad guy seems shocked by this and everyone portraying Martin as a helpless victim can’t seem to believe it. It happens. Move on – just because the actors in the play weren’t precisely who you thought they were doesn’t have to change what’s happening. The bottom line is that Richie may be guilty of taking what says were “orders” to toughen Jonathan up a bit too far. How much too far? Enough that Martin completely snapped which, by all accounts, is out of his character. What was his character, though, is taking the high road and removing himself from the situation rather than “punch the bully in the nose,” as most have suggested he should have done.

My question remains, though – when did verbal and sometimes physical abuse become OK? Kids teasing kids and trash talking to each other on the field has been around since the little round ball rolled from one kid to another. What I’ve seen over the few decades of my life indicate it’s getting worse and, in my opinion, what’s worse is that it’s becoming accepted and acceptable. It’s OK to tell someone that you’re going to “shit down your throat?” Really? It’s not ok, then, by the same token, to say, “Whatever” and walk away? In sports, does that mean that if you don’t punch the nose of the person calling you names or giving you heaps of grief, you’re not a man?

I also question those around. To me, if you’re seeing this going on and you don’t step up for the “underdog,” you’re a coward. You may think that you’re just witnessing good, character-building hazing. You may think that, somehow, by not stepping in or, at the very least, finding out what was really going on and assessing whether or not something needed to be done, you’re just maintaining the locker room culture and helping a rookie remember his place. What you’re really doing is being too cowardly to intervene on behalf of someone who is supposedly your teammate, the person you rely on to do his or her job to help you win the game. I know, you’ll come across to the teammate doing the hazing as a something less than the he-man he is because you couldn’t take it, apparently, either. That’s a valid opinion, I suppose, but it’s wrong. Here’s my take, and it’s really simple: it takes more “manliness” to show compassion and support for a person who is suffering than the person who’s doing the tearing down, the abuse, the “hazing.” You want to “man up?” Try being a human.

The one thing that’s not taken into consideration anywhere in the machismo of a locker room is this – not everyone is a he-man, yelly, hitty kind of guy. I’ve had words with my coaches, before, the day practices started, where I said, “I don’t respond to being screamed at. That may work for some of your other players, but if you want the best out of me, that’s not the way to go about it. Talk to me like a person and you’ll get the best player I can be.” I know – about as unmanly as one can get, right? May be, but it worked. Not only did it work, but I became the “go-between” for the coaches and other players who had more the disposition I had. We weren’t unmanly. I’ve played with broken fingers, ribs, toes and dignity (that’s what it’s called when you take a corner kick to the face and wobble for a minute or two). I also had the respect of my teammates who also understood where I was coming from. But I was vocal about it. I wasn’t shy about how I knew I was, even though it was opposite of how all these players you see on TV seem to be. Maybe that’s the difference.

I can’t see a player in the NFL going up to his coach and saying, “Coach, I’m a different cat and take a different approach to motivate and have a different perspective as to what ‘tough’ is,” let alone to teammates who have come up through the inner cities, have been sons of old-school coaches, and as such have a much dimmer view on being cerebral than even aforementioned old-school coaches.

I guess this is when my experience comes in. I mentioned I’ve coached lots of kids in this situation. I’ve coached kids who were only playing because their parents were living “the dream” vicariously through their son or daughter as though it was their ticket to the Stanley Cup even though the kid would much rather be at home, reading. I’ve had the talks with those kids, cajoled them and made them feel as though, even though they hated it with every fiber of their little beings, they would still do it because it did mean so much to their parents. I also made them promise to talk to their parents because I didn’t want them doing what they didn’t want to be doing and also made it very clear that I would be supportive of them and talk to their parents, as well. I also made it clear that we were down 6-3 and I really needed their help out there. I mentioned that I had coached lots of kids who were hiding that pain because they didn’t want to get yelled at by the coach. Being that coach, let me be clear that I wasn’t that coach. In fact, I did something that Jonathan Martin is getting called “soft” for doing – I removed myself from that situation. Tangential story time:

There was no hiding the pain. My left defenseman could barely skate or stand up straight – his back had finally seized. You see, he had gone trail riding with his dad the day before and rolled his quad. He was, genuinely, lucky to be standing there in front of me. So, I knew. I knew that it was only a matter of time before that became too much for him. Despite the pain, however, he was out there and contributing as much as possible. Unfortunately, because we were a player short, already, that meant he had played all 30 minutes, thus far, of the 45-minute game. I had already talked to the referee beforehand, mentioning that there was a very real possibility I was going to pull the player and would, therefore, need to either borrow a player or have them remove a player to keep the play “fair.” That word…fair. At any rate, since the refs were volunteers and not horribly invested in the whole “youth roller hockey movement,” I got a mumbled acknowledgement that filled me with more dread than anything else. So, when it finally happened, I barked to the ref for roughly two minutes to get his attention. Nothing. Well, nothing except a 5-on-3 breakaway that resulted in a goal against. The deciding goal against, not to make too fine a point.

So, now, I have a player completely hunched over, sobbing because he’s blaming himself, and a face-off. Well, unfortunately, I started to unravel a bit. First and foremost, I called the ref over to my player and while I’m explaining what needs to happen, I’m gently moving the hunched, sobbing defenseman to the bench. Now, at this time an…inquisitive…parent had been eavesdropping and at the suggestion of either “borrowing an opposing player” or having them pull on of theirs to even the teams up, there comes this bellowing rampage about “how would that be fair to the kids? What would that teach the kids? Why should they lend them a kid? How that be fair?” As you can tell, very much the mentality that give coaches hives and youth sports parents a bad name. “Why?” you ask, as these seem to be perfectly fair, reasonable questions. Why, indeed.

I will refrain from printing my tirade. I will simply summarize: Fair has nothing to do with it as the kid doubled over on the sideline thinking this is all his fault and feels not only pain, but guilt as he feels he has let down all of his teammates, friends. Fair has everything to do with as it shows the kids the importance of helping and that it’s more about the game than the game – meaning the culture of the game than the game currently being played and that it wasn’t about winning or losing, anymore, but about doing something for a friend, as they were all friends outside of the game, and having even teams. Why would you want to play a team when they’re at an obvious disadvantage when playing against an evenly matched and fully complemented team is much more satisfying, win or lose? Would you rather beat a team because your best was better than their best, that day, or because they were two men short and you beat an already disadvantaged team? Likewise, would you rather lose knowing you were able to compete and your best just wasn’t up to snuff or because you never had a chance from the get-go? Yes, that’s the summary. I got very red-faced and blustery…until I stopped. I looked at the kids I was coaching and they deserved better than that from me. They deserved who I was, not what I became in that moment. It’s something I’m still not proud of and given the chance would still apologize to the parent if I could readily identify him. It’s also why I’m not coaching, anymore. What I saw in me and I my potential for demonstrating that behavior in front of the kids I was coaching – that scared me enough to walk away, even though I really did love it. That is, however, the kind of coach you see on every field or rink – that fiery coach who yells and screams and throws headsets or benches.

To bring this back to the situation at hand, it also had to do with things that were out of my control. In the time since, I’ve been diagnosed and have received treatment for depression and it touched that part of my brain that was responsible for my reactions that day (and other days, really, outside of the rink). This is something that Brandon Marshall has been very outspoken about, in his life. His turbulent past has settled down greatly since he sought and has received – and is still receiving – treatment for his mental illness. What this has to do with the Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin situation is exactly this: we don’t know what’s going on in either of these two men’s brains. We also don’t know how any mental illness played into the tipping point. I mean, for my part, as a youth coach, I’d been heckled for years, by grandmothers no less, and it was just water off a duck’s back – until it wasn’t. I saw something in myself that scared me and that’s when I chose to walk away. There may have been something that Jonathan saw, that afternoon, or felt that made him do a complete 180 and walk away from the game he loved and the teammates he would ultimately be letting down. He may have felt that it was better to let them down by walking away than to risk the alternative and only Jonathan Martin knows what that alternative might have been. Am I saying that this is what happened? No. I am saying, however, that there are things going on that we don’t know and there are things inside each man’s mind that we will never know, for better or for worse, and that to say a man’s “soft” because he chose to walk away than risk a much worse outcome, well…that’s ignorant.

Fans of modern music tend to form strange and permanent connections with the musicians that perform the music they love.  Another trend that I’ve encountered over the years is that modern music has a way of claiming lives of the musicians performing it.  While there are some rock stars that have burned too brightly and burned out through addiction and overdose, there are some that are taken from us far too early by others’ actions.  These are just as hard, if not a bit harder, to me.  I remember, at the age of 13, learning about Cliff Burton’s death.  I was, apparently, depressed for a couple of months.  I don’t know if I had exactly the same reaction, depression-wise, seven years later, when I learned that a drunk driver took from this earth one of the most talented, underrated and creative guitarists I’d ever listened to – Criss Oliva.  I probably wasn’t the same variety of ‘mess’ I was with Cliff, but this was still one of those moments where you just feel your heart goes away for a bit, sort of in hiding, sort of retreating.

I never got to meet Criss – my dad did! – but, again, there’s that feeling of connectedness when I listen to a song like “Silk and Steel” or “If I Go Away” where it may not be the most technically amazing playing I’ve ever heard, but I can’t help but get drawn in by the soul and energy and love that were poured into each note.  That said, there are plenty of instances where Criss’ playing IS the most technically amazing playing I’ve ever heard.  It’s that connectedness that so many fans feel with their favorite bands.  It’s why there are legions of Sava-fans out there who felt the loss so deeply.  Again, I don’t remember being hit quite as hard as when Cliff died, maybe more as a factor of being 20 rather than 13, but that said, I also feel more sadness, now, when I think about Criss than when I think of Cliff.  I remember being exceedingly excited about “Handful of Rain” being released because I wanted to hear a fitting tribute.  It didn’t disappoint – it was rushed, imperfect and completely heartfelt.  I’ve always been so grateful to Alex Skolnik for stepping in and helping make that record happen.

I have two sons who both tend to enjoy metal, even if it’s not their mainstay genre (though, it kind of is. \m/ ), but have both been raised with an appreciation for Criss and his playing.  That’s what we’re left with, though – Criss’ music and emotion and energy he put behind every riff, every pinch harmonic squeal.  Twenty years ago, today, the metal world lost an amazing guitarist and person.  Rest in peace, Criss, and know how much you gave to the world.

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